Barefoot women lawyers work miracles
In the aftermath of the brutal gang-rape of a young woman on a Delhi bus in 2012, the Indian government hurriedly brought in new legislation to deal with sexual violence. As in most democratic societies, the Indian public used one of the most effective levers of change: mass protest. The government responded by increasing the use of fast-track courts, introducing one-stop rape centres, a national helpline, criminalising police inaction and heavier sentencing among a raft of measures. Yet these have not been able to reverse the decline in the rate of conviction over the years which now stands at approximately 24 percent. What’s going on?
Bea Campbell calls it THE IMPUNITY. The deadening hand of anti-equality forces swing into motion to preserve the status quo as far as possible: the law and order forces charged with implementation; the media who should be monitoring that implementation; and social attitudes which change at the same speed that an oil-tanker turns around in the ocean. Even the loudest protest fades in the face of an apparently responsive state. The critique of rape culture triggered by the incident and its resulting demand that women should be able to live free from the fear of violence at home or on the street was subtly, and not so subtly, manipulated into a patriarchal narrative of women as victims, kept at home and denied their freedoms in the name of protection.
Changes in Indian rape law did not accommodate all feminist demands, for example, the demand that marital rape be recognised as a crime did not make it into the statute books. The laws that each society enacts are very revealing of how patriarchy spreads its tendrils in that particular society. What the law on rape in India tells us about patriarchy there is that rape is seen as a 'societal' or 'communal' horror - where the honour of the family, the community, the caste is at stake rather than an emphasis on the 'personal' horror of violation or a breach of women’s human rights. For Radha Kumar, author and feminist, narratives on rape show ‘the way in which the woman’s body is seen as representing the community’.
This collective punishment of a community and thereby reinforcing the hegemonic status of caste Hindus partly explains the extent, brutality and frequency of sexual violence visited upon Dalit (formerly known as Untouchables) women who work mainly as manual scavengers (cleaning dry toilets with their bare hands). For the same reasons perhaps, the conviction rate for rape cases brought by Dalit women stands at an appallingly low 2 percent.
One organisation, Jan Sahas (People’s Courage), which represents Dalit women has bucked the trend by raising the conviction rate from 2 to 38 percent, an example of civic society actions that create small oases of justice in a society in which democratic institutions are crumbling.
Jan Sahas set up its own network of 350 lawyers, the Progressive Lawyers Forum, to provide legal support in over 5000 cases of atrocity, which included nearly 1000 cases of rape against mainly Dalit women across six states in 2013, to counter the corruption of the public prosecution system. Lawyers earn Rs150 per case (£1.50), low even by Indian standards, a payment rate that attracts incompetent individuals who are infinitely susceptible to bribes of Rs10-15,000 (£100-£150) offered by the generally upper-caste families of the accused to scupper the case.
Jan Sahas has also trained 200 female survivors of sexual violence as “barefoot lawyers” to support victims currently going through the criminal justice system. Many of them are illiterate and do not know their rights. They face tremendous pressure from family members not to pursue the case either because of the stigma attached to it or because the family has been paid off by the accused, pressure from the wider community/village, pressure from the accused and the police. The barefoot lawyers were subjected to these pressures when they were fighting for justice themselves and are in a unique position to support the women who are facing this bureaucratic and corrupt system for the first time.
Jan Sahas is trying to develop medical protocols in dealing with rape victims which are non-existent in most states. This results in women facing any of the following: the two-finger medical test to ascertain whether women are virgins as a way of discrediting rape accusations which was banned post the Delhi case but is still practiced in the regions; medics who do not want to get involved in a legal case will not examine a woman on their shift which sometimes leave them waiting for up to 40 hours, so weakening their medical case; or medical students are taught not to get involved in such cases because these women are likely to end up ‘accusing them of rape’.
Where the police are concerned, the litany includes: police disbelief of women’s claims; police rape of raped women because they are seen as ‘loose’; careless and erroneous police statements which will lead to the judge throwing out the case; bribes to quash the investigation; not lodging an FIR (First Information Report), an important first step in starting the legal process and investigation, and which is mandatory in allegations of rape. Instead the police will record it in their daily diary (rojnamcha) which has no legal status and distorts rape statistics but satisfies an illiterate woman that action is being taken. The transfer of a case from the rojnamcha to FIR status will only happen where pressure is being brought on the police.
That is where Jan Sahas steps in. They empower women through a three day training programme which includes role play in a mock courtroom to understand the legal process. When women are empowered in this way to become leaders and advocates for themselves and others, a model that Jan Sahas has borrowed from its campaign to liberate scavengers, it produces unprecedented results.
Although rape is an act of violence, misogyny and male power, and although men everywhere can overcome other hatreds such as racism towards black women slaves, it is nonetheless staggering that men who fear defilement through less intimate forms of ‘touch’ think nothing of flushing themselves into the bodies of Dalit women.
The untouchability of Dalits is so etched into Indian cultural attitudes that separate utensils are kept in caste-Hindu households for Dalits. Imagine then the potency of another of Jan Sahas’s initiatives to find alternative employment for women who were once toilet cleaners – cooking lunch for the schoolchildren of caste Hindus. It may be small scale but such radical challenges to the status quo hold real potential for giving patriarchy a bloody nose.